Creighton couldn’t stop this monster! Too bad Xavier couldn’t get him the ball more… (Jim O’Connor, USA Today Sports)
I waited until this morning to write this piece, (1) because I was disappointed and (2) because i wanted to see where the chips fell first. Selection Sunday is tonight, and it should be an interesting one for Xavier fans.
On Friday, Xavier fell 86-78 to Creighton in a game that felt much like the first outing than the second. Foul trouble to key players, lights-out shooting from the Bluejays, an explosive Xavier offense that all the same was trading two-pointers for three-pointers, and a comeback from a double-digit deficit that made the game tense at the end. Yep, that all sounds like a certain game in Omaha on January 12. And though I am disappointed at the missed opportunity, much like that day, I am also very proud of the fight in this team. Barring two exceptions (versus Tennessee in the Bahamas and at Georgetown), this team just does not give up in any game. The fight this 2013-2014 edition of Xavier basketball has is incredible. In the face of adversity, they willed themselves to victory against Bowling Green, Evansville, Alabama, Georgetown, and Marquette. They ultimately did not prevail but nevertheless kept fighting in games against USC, Creighton (twice now), Providence, Marquette, Seton Hall, and Villanova. Obviously, there’s the problem of getting in those situations in the first place, as this team does has it flaws, but the tenacity and the character is impressive. To quote the late Gary Griffin from earlier this season, “I love this team!”
Now, about the game. Despite Creighton scoring an amazing 1.41 points per possession, Xavier actually played some really good defense (outside a couple major drawbacks). It was actually much better defense than the game in Omaha when they “held them” to their average of 1.22 points per possession. That just emphasizes how ridiculously good Creighton’s A-game is. Xavier’s defense was rotating extremely well, making Creighton work very hard to get their shots, but the Bluejays are an incredibly patient team and they found their openings. Oftentimes, they simply hit some really tough shots, especially Doug McDermott. If you were somehow in a coma for the past few months and were wondering why he will soon be declaring Player of the Year across pretty much all services, Friday’s game presented a shining example of exactly why. Justin Martin was smothering him out there, playing the best defense I have ever seen from him, and McDermott just hit some near-impossible shots. I’m still not sure how he hit that awkward fadeaway in the lane with Martin practically blocking his shot. Jalen Reynolds also did a good job on Ethan Wragge early on, save one instance. The defense on Ethan Wragge overall was the one major flaw for Xavier’s defense (Creighton’s transition scoring later in the game being the consequence of having to press when down double digits). James Farr was a major culprit on this front, sagging way off of Wragge to help on drives, which is probably a reason he only saw 2 minutes, and Matt Stainbrook simply isn’t equipped to defend thirty feet from the basket. Overall, this was the breakdown in Xavier’s defensive discipline, and it hurt their chances in a big way, as Wragge finished the game 5-9 from deep.
So, when Reynolds picked up his second foul with game only at 24-20 and when Martin picked up his second foul soon after, things got rough for Xavier. Reynolds was one of the only ones doing a good job defending Wragge (Philmore was decent, but often not assigned to him), and Martin was the only player who remotely matched up with McDermott. In addition, Reynolds presented a mismatch in the post (which was put to good use later in the game), and Martin was the main offensive force for Xavier in the first half and the primary reason they managed to keep up with Creighton’s blitzkrieg. Creighton’s defense had been focused on denying Semaj driving lanes, and he wasn’t really efficient in the first half (and only moderately efficient for the game). The packed-in nature of the defense also made it more difficult to exploit the size disparity with Philmore and Stainbrook, though they both had some good moments. In the absence of Reynolds and Martin, though, the margin opened up to double digits and Xavier went into halftime down 45-33.
The second half started the same way, even with Martin and Reynolds return. As Xavier kept fighting back, Creighton just kept responding. It didn’t help that every tough shot seemed to go in for the Bluejays, even against great defense. Honestly, I can’t think of the last time I’ve seen an offense this successful against defense like this. It was incredible to watch, and I just wish I didn’t happen to be a fan of the team that had to face Creighton that day. Later into the half, Creighton started scoring off of Xavier’s pressure, which was the obvious but necessary risk, and the deficit ballooned to 19 (71-52) with 8:08 to play. Most would simply consider the game over by that point. Not the Musketeers.
Xavier had been scoring steadily in the second half, especially with its mismatches on the interior. The more finesse Creighton frontcourt couldn’t handle the size, physicality, and (in one case) athleticism of Reynolds, Philmore, and Stainbrook. The problem was that Xavier had been unable to stop the juggernaut on the other side of the court. That changed at this point, as Xavier held Creighton without a field goal for 5 1/2 minutes. I don’t think the Xavier defense really changed here. They simply stuck to the system they believed in and Creighton finally started missing shots. At the last media timeout, the deficit was down to 10.
Then Isaiah Philmore went to work, like it was his last game he would ever play his senior year (it won’t be). Zeke scored 9 points in the last 2:19, beginning with five straight to cut the deficit to 6. The free throw line on the Creighton side had begun, and Dee Davis came back down the court to knock down a clutch three-pointer. The game was once 71-52 but had been cut down to 77-72 in less than 7 minutes. The decisive moment was Grant Gibb’s second free throw attempt on the other end bouncing off the rim at a 90 degree angle to Austin Chatman. If Xavier had snagged that offensive rebound, they would have had possession down 6 with 1:16 to go. That wasn’t the result, but I’m impressed with how close they came, especially with the play of Philmore, who finished with 23 points and 7 rebounds. In the end, Creighton took care of business at the free throw line, making their final 8 attempts, to seal the game, but Xavier made it hard on them for sure.
That challenge may have actually helped Providence the next night. Even when Creighton was hitting shots, Xavier was still making them work hard for it, and the physicality with which Xavier plays, especially in the paint, had to have worn down a Creighton team that had just easily beat up on DePaul the previous night. Ed Cooley came out with a great gameplan involving an interesting zone defense (With the Bluejays’ shooting, who would have thought?) and played Creighton with the same level of physicality that Xavier had. In the end, the Friars beat a Creighton team that shot 26.7% from three-point range (but couldn’t give Xavier the same courtesy!), and Providence, as the Big East Tournament Champions, can now ignore the Bubble that once gripped them so thoroughly.
And that brings us to Xavier. For starters, I am 99.9% confident that Xavier will receive a tournament invite, so I don’t consider that to be worth discussing here (and if somehow Xavier isn’t invited, I’m not even going to post here out of rage). My concern here is over where Xavier falls in seeding, particularly in terms of whether or not they receive a bye from the play-in game in (ugh) Dayton. If Providence had lost to Creighton but still made the tournament, they would have been a play-in team, making it less likely that Xavier would have been one of those four. Since auto-bids are not eligible for the 11- and 12-seed play-in games, the Friars essentially leapfrogged the Musketeers. Keep in mind that Dayton also has the potential to be slotted in the play-in game, and a matchup between the Flyers and the Musketeers would be…gratuitous on the part of the Selection Committee. Whether it’s Dayton or not, the crowd will still be hostile, as Dayton fans have already picked up pretty much all the tickets not allotted to specific teams, as they do every year, since usually that’s the only part they have in the Dance (bazing!). The play-in game is also not palatable because (1) it’s a legitimate challenge to win it, (2) it makes the Thursday/Friday game tougher after a win, since there’s only a two-day turnaround, and (3) it doesn’t feel like the tournament yet.
So what are the chances of getting that bye? It depends on who you turn to. Right here, I’m crossing Jerry Palm off the list to consider and you should too, as he has been a mediocre bracketologist. I don’t even know how similar his bracket is this year to some I’m going to list (even blind squirrels can find a nut now and then), but I don’t really care, because I at least know I can rely on others’ track records. Overall, Joe Lunardi has been mediocre too, but it’s been pointed out to me that he has done much better over the past two seasons. With a more transparent Selection Committee recently (Thanks, Mike Bobinski!), everyone has done better, but Lunardi has done “more better.” He has us in the Last Four not playing Dayton but playing BYU***, a familiar opponent to Xavier fans from the 2006-2007 season in an 8/9 matchup that was a tense back-and-forth game punctuated by brilliant play from Drew Lavender. Dayton and Nebraska are the other two play-in teams for Lunardi. St. Joseph’s, Arizona State, SMU, and Tennessee are the First Four Byes. Southern Miss, Minnesota, Florida State, and California are the First Four Out.
***BYU’s placement in (or out) of the field will be interesting, as they lost one of their star players, Kyle Collingsworth, to a season-ending injury in a loss to Gonzaga in WCC Tournament Championship.
The method of ranking I used to discredit Palm as average comes from the Bracket Project, which does a Bracket Matrix that builds a composite of all sorts of professional and amateur brackets. The idea is that the wisdom of the crowd will eliminate outliers and eventually come to the best results, which proved true last year, as it was the #1 overall. It has been one of the better projections in other years too. Xavier comes in as the best of the Last Four In, grouped with the same trio as Lunardi, who are all right behind Xavier. The Musketeers have an average seed of 11.01. Tennessee and Southern Methodist are both similarly rated to Xavier, coming in at 10.82 and 10.85. Arizona State, Iowa, and St. Joseph’s are the only other teams that come within a seed on average. Southern Miss, Minnesota, California, and Florida State are the First Four Out (though none of them are included in more than 10 of the 84 brackets currently).
So that’s two projections from well-respected sources that put Xavier in Dayton on Tuesday or Wednesday, though they’re right on the border on the Bracket Matrix and I’m not sure where they fall within that group for Lunardi. That’s a little disconcerting, but don’t worry, there’s still hope: Dance Card, which has been one of the best sources for bracketology. They use an algorithm to project the field, and it has been highly successful. Xavier is far from being relegated to a play-in game and is actually ranked 39th, the equivalent of a 10 seed! Their Last Four In are rather different from the other sources, with only Nebraska being the same (BYU is the first team above the cut-off). The other three are Nebraska, Iowa, and Oklahoma State. Southern Miss, SMU, NC State, and Florida State are the First Four Out. Dayton, who has otherwise joined Xavier in the Last Four In, is actually three spots higher than Xavier’s fairly lofty position, basically flipping spots with Iowa.
Iowa is an interesting case, because they are usually projected higher (and their Kenpom and Sagarin ratings would suggest that too), but Dance Card has them pretty low (and I agree). They were 27th in Kenpom last year, though, and didn’t make the field at all, despite some good wins and only two bad losses. Why? Their non-conference SOS was one of the worst in the nation, they only scheduled one non-conference road game (and lost it), their road record overall was 2-8, and their conference record was 10-10. Though the Selection Committee is making increased use of advanced statistical models like Kenpom, these areas I just listed have a disproportionate influence on Bubble teams, thus indicating why Iowa received the opportunity to lose in the NIT Championship. This year, they significantly improved their non-conference SOS to a still-decidedly-bad 190, they still only scheduled one non-conference road game (and lost it again), their road record improved to 4-6, and their conference record was similar at 9-10. They only accrued one bad loss this time to their collection of good wins (Xavier is one of them, you’re welcome), and their efficiency numbers stayed about the same. I think this time, Iowa has done enough to receive a bid, but I don’t think they are a lock to receive a bye, which many projections give them. I’m with Dance Card on this placement in the Last Four In, which would increase the likelihood of Xavier avoiding this fate.
Oklahoma State is projected even higher by other services, falling on the 8/9 seed line frequently, so their position as the last team in the tournament is pretty interesting. Dance Card, being a formula, wouldn’t take into account Marcus Smart’s suspension, which the Selection Committee probably will, so that will bump them up some most likely. Their non-conference SOS is marginal rather than straight-up bad, though they are also guilty of only scheduling one road game there (at least they won it, but they went 2-8 overall on the road). Their conference record is a pretty poor 9-11. Once again, we’re seeing the recipe for Bubble status, rather than lock status, and Oklahoma State could find themselves in a play-in game, but I think it’s unlikely. I would not be surprised to see them with a double-digit seed, though.
When it comes to Xavier, one interesting thing to consider is how the Selection Committee will view Matt Stainbrook’s injury. With him averaging double-digit minutes in the two games this week, after only recently getting injured, I think they’ll project him at 100% for the tournament. That said, how will they view Xavier’s losses when he either didn’t play or was only good for bench minutes? The Musketeers went 1-3 in their final four games, 20-9 prior to that. The Seton Hall game could likely get an asterisk, since his injury happened mid-game. Losing to two top 10 teams with 0 minutes or 9 minutes from the Big Stain could also be suggestive of how good Xavier will be again with him back. I doubt it would make a major difference, as it was only a four-game stretch in which Xavier won a game and lost to two elite teams that likely could have beat Xavier with him at full-strength. Still, it could be enough to help Xavier avoid that play-in game slot, especially if the loss at Seton Hall receives that asterisk.
So, respectable sources are saying different things about Xavier’s position, though at least no one is really saying Xavier won’t make the tournament. I’m leaning to a 2 to 1 chance that Xavier gets a bye, which aren’t really odds that I fancy. A win versus Creighton would have stowed away that talk, but it wasn’t meant to be, no matter how much heart the players had. I could go on much longer with the analysis (clearly), but I think I’ll just wait for 6pm tonight.